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UK delivered Syria chemicals needed for sarin production ‘for 6 years’

Published time: September 08, 2013 12:03
Edited time: September 09, 2013 05:33
Street signs are seen near the Houses of Parliament in London.(Reuters / Toby Melville)

Street signs are seen near the Houses of Parliament in London.(Reuters / Toby Melville)

British companies sold sodium fluoride, a key ingredient in the manufacture of the deadly nerve gas sarin, to a Syrian firm from 2004-2010, British media reveal, a sale that has been called ‘disturbing’ following the chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

Between July 2004 and May 2010, the British government issued five export licenses to two companies, allowing them to sell Syria sodium fluoride, necessary for the production of sarin, according to a report in the Daily Mail, a British daily.

Sarin, a nerve gas that is hundreds of times deadlier than cyanide, is considered one of the world’s most dangerous chemical warfare agents. It works on the nervous system, over-stimulating muscles and vital organs, and a single drop can be lethal in minutes. The US, France and Germany say the deadly chemical was used in the attacks of August 21 in the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta that left hundreds of civilians dead or injured.

The Sunday Mail says UK firms did export sodium fluoride to a Syrian cosmetics firm throughout the six years for what they claim were legitimate purposes. The daily quotes British MPs admitting for the first time that the chemical was delivered to Syria which has been condemned as a ‘grossly irresponsible’ move and a clear violation of international protocol on the trade of dangerous substances.

British MPs signaled their extreme displeasure with the shocking revelations.

"These are very disturbing revelations uncovered by The Mail on Sunday regarding the provision of sodium fluoride to Syria. At no time should we have allowed President Assad’s regime to get its hands on this substance,” Thomas Docherty MP, a member of the Commons Arms Export Controls Committee, said on Saturday.

“Previously we thought that while export licenses had been granted, no chemicals were actually delivered. Now we know that in the build-up to the Syrian civil war, UK companies – with the backing of our Government – were supplying this potentially lethal substance,” he added.

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013 (Reuters / Bassam Khabieh)

While the last export license was issued in May 2010, the licenses are obtained prior to manufacture and the industry standard requires four to five months before the chemicals are delivered.

"We are looking at late 2010 for the British supplies of sodium fluoride reaching Syria,” Docherty said.

The Government has some very serious questions to answer, he concluded.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) defended the sale of the chemical to Syria, saying the amount was “commensurate with the stated end use in the production of cosmetics and there was no reason to link them with Syria’s chemical weapons program. This remains the case.”

The BIS refused to release the names of the two UK exporters for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

This comes on top of another sarin-related scandal as earlier British officials were found  to have granted export licenses for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride exports to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil conflict breakout. The January 2012 licenses were given in the knowledge that both substances “could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons,” according to a report published by the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls.

Angus Robertson, a Scottish National Party MP, told RT that the matter was raised in the House of Commons last week following the House of Commons ruling not to participate in military action against the Syrian government.

“Defense ministers had to explain why it was that the UK would even consider granting an export license,” he said, adding that it was "impossible to tell" whether rebels could have got hold of the chemicals once they had passed into the country.

A Syrian army tank maneuvers in the Eastern Ghouta area on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus on August 30, 2013. (AFP Photo / Sam SKaine)

“I’m still concerned, however, as the chemical licenses were issued at a time when the situation in Syria had already deteriorated,” Robertson added. 

Meanwhile, in the US, members of Congress are debating whether to give President Barack Obama the green light for a military strike on the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, who the White House holds responsible for last month’s deadly chemical weapons attack.

The US leader had earlier warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was the “red line” that, if crossed, would necessitate US involvement. The White House caveat, however, did not consider the possibility that Syrian rebel forces would jump at the opportunity of bringing US forces over to their side in the event of such an attack.

During the G20 summit, which just wrapped up in St. Petersburg, the White House released a joint statement signed by the leaders and representatives of 11 nations – ten of whom are G20 members. The signees included Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The signatory nations said they “support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”

However, the signatories to the statement were clearly opposed to any military action against Syria.

“Recognizing that Syria’s conflict has no military solution, we reaffirm our commitment to seek a peaceful political settlement through full implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique.  We are committed to a political solution which will result in a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it read.

Russia and China, among other nations, remain highly skeptical of claims that the Assad regime resorted to the use of chemical weapons, saying there is not enough evidence to prove with any certainty the identity of the perpetrators of the attack.

At the G20 summit, President Vladimir Putin called the chemical attack “provocation” carried out by rebels and cautioned strike supporters to act within the UN charter, and only after firm results of the UN probe are published, which may happen as soon as next week.